Sisi, Sinai and the Repression in Egypt

Photo source: Foreign Policy

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

The attacks in Sinai peninsula in May 2022 by the Islamic State were one of the deadliest in the region in recent memory, and they raise an important matter at hand: if Abdel Fattah al-Sisi must be supported by Western patrons for ‘counter terrorism ties’, why is Islamic State still successful in expanding extremist activities in Egypt? And, why hasn’t he become successful until now?

To combat extremism efforts, the Egyptian military had expanded in the areas of northern Sinai between the Gaza strip in the east and the Suez Canal in the west, allowing for a return of some civilian activity. But, the strategy has largely backfired as Islamic State militants are continuing to seek refuge in the desert, and are using different tactics such as sniping and planting explosives.

Sinai, itself, has been brimming in conflict for decades. It started with Naseer’s dubious pan Arabism, and Egyptian discrimination against Arab Bedouins, which reduced them to non-citizens. When Sinai began a new era of redevelopment, the former Bedouin villages such as the tiny fishing village of Sharm el-Sheikh, became massive tourist resorts. Even Morsi had a plan for a new Sinai where he wanted a legislation to give grassroot land owning rights to local populations, and insisted on a dialogue with local Bedouin leaders. The hope was that the Bedouin residents of the Sinai would reap the rewards of these changes. Instead, in Sisi’s time, they were forcibly evicted from their homes to make way for commercial developments by foreign corporations for rich Western tourists. To add insult to injury, Egyptians from the Nile Valley and Delta were lured in to take up jobs in the booming service industry, putting out local Bedouins from even menial jobs and leaving them destitute. Although, the conflict in Sinai precedes Sisi, the Islamic State managed to gain a strong foothold there, after the coup brought him into power. They used the Bedouin struggle to create a ruthless war, especially against Christians and Sufi Muslims, and those who oppose Salafi jihadism. The election of Morsi, who was a proponent of Islamic democracy boosted Islamic State’s ideological logic as well, as they thought modern democracy and Islam together were heretical.

In Sinai, the Islamic State functions as a racket. It for weeks, or years, fails to make headlines, but then they randomly start attacking and killing civilians, getting back into the limelight. This is then used by Sisi to increase his power of repression in Egypt.

The censure of Egypt by United States is also letting it fail to address the grave human rights record, which have been never publicly condemned by Washington. US officials, time and again, have also concluded that its relationship with Egypt is complex. They have all along wanted a passage of US warships through Suez Canal, and want overflight access to American military aircrafts. Despite its deep ties with United States, Egypt is also diversifying its source of arms, since Barack Obama in 2013 froze delivery of some military aid to Egypt after Morsi’s overthrow. Due to this reason, it is now buying arms and ammunition from Russia, France, Italy, and Germany.

The Western leaders, be it Biden, Macron or Merkel, have typically praised Sisi as a role model for ‘stability’. It also proves that they are doing lip service in the name of liberty, and universal human rights back home, as neither could care about regime’s victims. Infact, Merkel in her visit to Egypt in 2018 finalised her deal, where Sisi imprisons migrants in the country, to stop them in reaching Europe’s shores, in return for lucrative trade deals with Germany and rest of Europe.

In recent times, Sisi has also arrested political workers of the opposition parties such as Strong Egypt Party, a party with Islamist leanings. They were part of ‘coalition of hope’, who planned to run in the parliamentary election of 2020. However, the critical moment of repression came when Sisi went on to arrest two thousand three hundred people, including the former head of liberal Constitution Party, and its spokespersons. Curated electoral lists were also devised during the 2020 election, where lion’s share of seats were given to Mostaqbal Watan party, which has had a close connection with state security services. Therefore, neutralising civilian political actors and concentrating power in the hands of security establishment, to whatever limits necessary, has been the essence of Sisi’s ruling junta. This can be further elaborated by the revelations of exiled contractor Mohamed Ali in 2019, who exposed widespread corruption in military led construction projects: when mass protests broke out against this problem, the protestors were met with sweeping repression. The crackdown on labour activism has also become widespread. In December 2020, heavy prison sentences were slapped against three five residents of Warraq Island, which was an epicenter of clashes in 2017 between local authorities and residents, following attempts of security forces to evict the residents. The mysterious murder of Guilio Regeni, an Italian PhD student, had also created uproar. The killing was pointed out at the Egyptian state security probably because he was involved in researching about Egypt’s independent labour activism. 

In Egypt, the heavy reliance on repression is an ideological narrative, essential in maintaining the healthy spirit of the security establishment. With time, this narrative has become difficult to control. According to Sisi, there is an international cooperation of Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition groups, which according to him, are destroying the Egyptian state. Hence, his main justification of military rule is to protect Egypt from collapse, which can only be achieved through repression, according to Maged Mandour, a political analyst.

Since 2013, the Geneva-based rights group Committee for Justice has also documented the cases of 92 political prisoners who have been executed in Egypt. Death sentences for another 64, which have been upheld by the highest appeals court and ratified by Sisi, could be carried out at any moment. There have been also attempts by Sisi to compel the media to toe the government line. Infact, Egypt ranks 166th out of 180 countries in World Press Freedom Index in 2021. According to RSF, twenty-two journalists and two citizen reporters are currently behind bars in Egypt. This makes the country ‘one of the world’s biggest jailers of journalists’. The number of imprisoned media professionals is higher in only three countries: Saudi Arabia, China and Myanmar.

For many Egyptian activists, the revolution has not materialised and it failed on many fronts. They think they were not better off during the period of Muslim Brotherhood’s brief rule, or during Mubarak’s time. For them, the incumbent leader Sisi, is a product of Mubarak regime, and the military, who has led a kind of system, where prison has become a part of their daily life. The anti-protest law discourages them to protest, and there is no progressive space for change. The Egyptian life, for them, in 2022 is like a sad epiphany, where it is difficult to predict where the country is heading to.


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